In recent years, the economy has been slowly but surely improving. As a result, many industries have been growing stronger and seeing benefits. When it comes to non-profit organizations, however, the improving economy may be introducing new challenges and reinforcing existing ones. Despite this, these organizations are hopeful about the future. Recently, executives representing philanthropy in Nevada met at the Las Vegas offices of City National Bank to discuss the industry and what is needed to move forward.
Tarah Richardson, editor-in-chief of Nevada Business Magazine served as moderator for the event. The magazine’s monthly roundtables bring together industry leaders to discuss relevant issues and solutions.
How has economic growth in Nevada affected philanthropy?
Deacon Tom Roberts: We’ve seen a polarity between people that are recovering and people that are struggling to grow. That piece of philanthropy has not kept up with the pace of stabilization and recovery in our economy. Those of us that are serving the most vulnerable are finding it harder to hold the services that we have. [It’s also a challenge] to be thoughtful about pivoting to focus on new [demographics] when the revenues are not growing conventionally with the level of economic recovery and participation in the community. It’s very hard to create sustainability funding for some of these new programs when the business tide is rising in the economy and yet, as our needs go up, there still is a disproportionate share of support.
Gian Brosco: There is a growing disparity between the “haves” and the “have nots”. Unless we rethink how we address poverty in this community, that isn’t likely to change. The new tax act did not negatively [affect] my donors. Most of my donors continue to itemize regardless of the doubling [of] the standard deduction but I worry that the front line organizations [and] social service providers [are] going to increasingly feel that loss of revenue from folks who now claim a standard deduction.
Esther Golleher: Because of the job markets and things like that, the affordability for cash patients is not really [there] for the normal family budget. [It] is very expensive for prenatal care but 53 percent of our clients have been cash patients. They have not even been able to qualify for Medicaid; not even emergency Medicaid. A woman who becomes pregnant has to make under $17,000 a year in order to qualify for Medicaid.
What are some factors that make funding a challenge?
Arash Ghafoori: One [challenge I am] seeing a lot of is “mission drift” going on. In other words, “Here’s a new bright, shiny object.” Everyone cares about sex trafficking now. All of a sudden, organizations are re-tooling like they have always done and that is a big problem when it comes to making sure that [non-profits] become experts at something as opposed to just jumping onto the next bandwagon.
Liz Ortenburger: The dollars have remained relatively there [but] the problem is [similar to] if I went to Apple and said, “Hey, I want an iPhone but you can’t spend any money on overhead, nothing can go to building, nothing can go to administration. Everything has to go into the actual iPhone that I’m going to receive. For $20,000, I need three reports to go along with that and then I want to see all your outcomes.” That is the issue. The amount of work it takes to get to the [financial support] and then how controlled it is, is frustrating. There’s a lot of work that goes into getting the business dollars. The individual dollars are easier because they generally come in through campaigns and are unrestricted and that’s what you end up using to fill all that operational cost that isn’t otherwise covered by something else. The restrictions around it make it complicated, can lead to mission creep and can do other things to make it just difficult for agencies to find their way.
Randy Kinnamon: We’ve relied [on] direct mail for many years. That is starting to decline significantly now. That’s not the way younger people give money and our average donor is a retired person, so it’s been a real struggle just to maintain. For the two years that I’ve been here, our fundraising through direct mail has been flat or declining and I see that as a challenge. How do I support the budget for things that we’re already doing?
Bob Brown: I’m constantly struggling with operational funding and staffing. Those are the two things I look at the closest. I’ll get a call from a parent, we’re taking care of their child and they need one-on-one care, for seven hours a day. Can you imagine just sitting next to somebody, one-on-one, for seven hours a day and paying [that employee] minimum wage? How are you going to find somebody to do that job? You can’t. We raised all of our minimum wages to $12 an hour. The culture is so much better and the staffing is so much better, but you [have to] raise your operational funding to match that. It all comes down to the fact that we’ve got to go out and convince donors that they need to fund us for operational uses. That is getting more and more difficult every single year. I don’t say it’s easy to raise capital because it really isn’t, but it’s easier than having to go out and explain that I need to pay people.
Brosco: It’s not sexy to fund operations, so that’s a problem.
Ortenburger: There’s a reticence in this community to actually get in front of an epidemic. We deal with batterers as well as victims of domestic violence. When I go and talk to legislators about this, there is an, “Ooh, I don’t want to write that into a bill,” because nobody wants to be seen as soft on crime. Well, guess what? If we want domestic violence to end, we actually have to deal with people who are perpetrating the domestic violence. There’s an inability to find large pockets of funding that isn’t taken away from your day to day because that still has to happen to actually get in front of an epidemic and that’s where we struggle.
How does duplication of services impact non-profits?
Annette Logan: With duplication of services in the pediatric or childcare philanthropy arena, it is problematic. We have a lot of people who are raising small amounts of money for programs that might not make the impact that the community actually needs. [Instead we should be] having people come together in more of a coalition style where folks could give larger sums of money and have it dispersed in an impactful way. We have quite a few organizations that do the same thing and then we have tremendous need that isn’t being met. So if we could figure out a way to help the community balance that, I think that it would be really helpful overall for the community.
Ghafoori: We need to do a better job of getting into the nuts and bolts of what organizations are actually doing and what their outcomes actually are—not that they just happen to be in the business of serving homeless youth or the business of building houses. But, how do they do it? How well do they do it? What distinguishes them? I think that we need to really look at our clients as consumers and be thinking about how we can provide them the highest quality service as opposed to just going, “You have a problem [so] I’m going to give you this [and] it should be good enough.” Really working on distinguishing [services] and outcomes is important.
Paul Stowell: Duplication of services is one of the frustrations from corporate funders and donors. We don’t want to fund duplicate-type services because we know our funds are so limited.
Ortenburger: Part of that is, if a grant is structured in a certain way. For example, if a grant is structured in a way that it is funding domestic violence work, you are going to have 17 agencies at the table saying, “We do domestic violence.” There are two accredited programs. So taking the time, as a funder, to understand what actually is a domestic violence program, what actually is a certified [organization] is important because the minute people hear, “Ah, that’s the funding? That’s the thing?” Then, all of a sudden you hear, “We sort of do that. We will make that work.” That is so frustrating.
How can non-profits and donors work together better?
Scott Roberts: I think education about what our organizations do isn’t getting out there. We’re so worried about paying payroll and running an organization that we are not [marketing]. How much money do you spend on marketing or communication about your organization? It goes to the very bottom of the pool.
Logan: We often don’t look at the impact of the organization to judge whether they’re doing good work or not. People don’t understand that in order to provide high-impact, quality programs for a community, it takes highly talented people who have education. [These people] cost a certain amount of money. We want to get the word out to the individual donors but we’re not allowed to because we’re judged if we spend money on marketing or advertising. We really need to change the way donors think about non-profits. It is a business and we need to run like businesses. That requires investment into infrastructure, it requires investment into technology, it requires investment into programming and [funding] programs that people don’t want to fund.
Brosco: Nobody in this room is going to go to a donor and say, “What you want to fund is a really bad idea, so thanks but no thanks.” What we do instead is say, “You’re so wonderful. Thank you so much. You’re a change agent.” That does both a disservice to that individual donor [and] to the broader community. It’s actually not the corporate funder’s fault because nobody is saying to [them], “You fund your own labor force. You fund your own marketing. You wouldn’t short change those pieces, so why would you short change them in a non-profit investment space?” Consultants and other folks don’t often message that to prospective donors, corporate and individual. Everybody in the community suffers as a result.
Tom Kovach: For decades, the highest category of donor in terms of the amount of money given each year to charity are individual households and that’s been an overlooked resource. Historically, we have focused on the very generous corporate givers who have been giving significantly for decades but there is a tremendous opportunity for individual households. As a non-profit community, we need to do a better job of coming together and delivering that message that those who are living here—households, families, individuals—can make a huge difference. There is a huge messaging opportunity.
Why is collaboration important?
Deacon Roberts: Collaboration is really the key to getting better outcomes. I would be silly to try to replicate [that]. Collaborating with others doesn’t require us to make a capital investment into a program that really does not have sustainability. [We should] focus on our core competencies and find others that do what they do.
Roberts: Our donors are connecting us at times. With homeless youth, we had a donor come to us and say, “Hey, did you know the number of homeless youth that are in Las Vegas? Do you know how hard it is for them to get into college? We need the dorms open 12 months a year. We need the cafeteria open for three meals, 12 months a year and relationships with other non-profits that can give them pillows and personal items.” This is incredible. As a university, we didn’t think that was something that we should be focused on, but [these are] incredible stories. We did a few videos and the donors that see those stories are in tears. They love being able to try to help some of these [youth].
Kovach: We need to do a better job of coming together and approaching funders. There was a press release Caesar’s issued in January for the Shared Future Fund, which is being organized by a non-profit called Impact NV. It identified the correlation between trafficking, immigrant immigration and homelessness. That fund is going to look at addressing those three issues and attract different sources of funding with a lens of, “These issues are inter-related. We need funders to look at funding all these pieces at one time because we aren’t going to solve the root problem without it.” As non-profits [we] can encourage ourselves to find those commonalities, find those connections and then go together to potential funders. We are going to have better success in changing the dynamic of how money is given out because we are connecting the dots for [them].
What impact do non-profit organizations have on the economy?
Brosco: Non-profits in this community are a growing economic engine and we need to recognize that. The community needs to recognize that.
Mike Mullin: That [rings] a bell with me because one of the things we are trying to do is understand our unique value starting with the economics. We actually ordered a study from the homebuilders for the economic impact of the 500 units that we’re building in 2019. There is $92 million that is being impacted in the community. [That consists of] 1,200 one-year jobs, 100 [long-term] jobs and $15 million to local governments in taxes and fees. If you take the 4,300 households that are not paying that extra money in rent, that is some $20 million that our residents are putting back into the community. We’re not even talking about all the benefits of just having a safe, decent home. It’s a big deal and that’s an economic argument that I don’t think anybody is talking about. As the non-profits, if we talked about the amount of money we are putting back into the community, [it] would be staggering.
Brown: Investment in us is an investment in your community. It’s really about community and what kind of community you want to live in. We are bringing something to the table government is never going to be able to do and so that’s the value that we really bring.
Why should we be optimistic about the future of philanthropy?
Stowell: This community is very vibrant. The future is very bright for Las Vegas and for Nevada. We have to get the smartest, brightest minds and individuals sitting at more of these tables to talk collaboratively, identify the priorities, identify the challenges and [to figure out] how we can identify the solutions.
Brosco: I’m optimistic for a pessimistic reason and that is that the hardest system to change is one that is working. We are at a critical juncture. At some point, you have got to start doing something differently. That means donor conversations and the donor education and having much harder conversations around what is going to work and what isn’t working.
Brown: I’ve never been as excited as I am now about the future. I see a lot of energy in millenials, how they volunteer, how they give and how they think about their community. There’s a lot of really baked-in change that is going to happen in the next generation and I’m very excited about it.
Roberts: I’m optimistic as well. I think we have to find the right mechanisms to communicate to that generation. As we know, direct mail and [some of] the other things that we’ve traditionally relied on aren’t going to be the answer but I’m very optimistic that we do live in a wonderful community that is growing. We have to help educate people to know that part of that growth has to include the safety net that we all participate in. The safety net has to grow while the economy grows.
Stowell: The Vegas Golden Knights came into this town, figured it out very quickly, and are doing a phenomenal job. What they do on the ice, they have to do off the ice. As Kerry Bubolz, the president of the Vegas Golden Knights, says, “Community is a contact sport.” Community is a contact sport and we are all involved.